By Darlene Donloe
After almost five decades leading the Black Business Association, Earl “Skip” Cooper II quietly retired as its president and CEO effective Dec. 31.
“After over 46 years in leadership with the BBA, I feel now is the time for new leadership to oversee the organization’s day-to-day operations,” Cooper said. “I’m retiring, but not from advocacy. I’m not walking away. I’ll still be involved.”
Asked if it feels like it has been 46 years, Cooper said, “no.”
“Not really,” he said. “When I look back at things we did, I say, ‘wow.’ But, I always think of things that I could have done better.”
An influential fixture in the Los Angeles Black business community, Cooper, who will turn 78 on Feb. 4, has been described as dedicated, authentic, funny and compassionate, but he said the quality he most appreciates and identifies with is committed.
“My commitment was to Black business and Black folks,” said Cooper. “I told God I wanted to be an expert in that because that was in my DNA. I knew I was going to be a force.
“It is and always will be a true commitment and my special purpose in life of serving African Americans and business owners, in addition to others. My legacy is that I was always committed to helping folks.”
Like most organizations, the BBA has had to pivot and transition its programs during the COVID-19 pandemic to a virtual format, including its annual salutes to Black history, Black women and Black music, as well as its twice-annual veterans’ procurement conference. There are also plans to launch its first e-commerce venture: a Black business-shopping guide.
Founded in 1970, the association is the oldest, active, ethnic business support organization in California. It has been committed to ensuring that African Americans and other diverse business owners benefit from its advocacy efforts to impact, improve, and implement policy that improves access to contracting and procurement opportunities with the public and private sector, in addition to providing access to financial resources.
Cooper, the father of one son, said that even as a little boy with his own paper route, he was already interacting with Black business leaders and community leaders.
“I knew early on what I wanted to do with my life,” said Cooper, who moved from West Oakland to Los Angeles in 1972. “I knew God put me on earth for a special purpose.”
Admittedly, Cooper has been talking to God ever since he was a little boy. When he was sent to Vietnam, he said he had a serious conversation with God.
“My first week in Vietnam was in April 1966,” Cooper said. “I told God, ‘I know you didn’t put me here to die. If you did, do it the first week I’m in Vietnam. Don’t have me stay here until a week before I’m supposed to return and then let me die.’ I promised God that if I made it back, I’d make a difference. I still talk to him often.”
Cooper began his career by working in a business development center as an intern in college. Not long after leaving military service, Cooper, who describes himself as a 100% disabled veteran, attended Merritt Community College in Oakland where he earned an associate degree in African American studies. He then earned a bachelor’s in business administration from Golden Gate University in San Francisco and a master’s degree from USC in business administration with an emphasis on entrepreneurship.
In 1974, Cooper joined the staff of what became the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, where he oversaw a state initiative helping minority-owned firms secure purchasing contracts with public and private sector organizations. It gave him a statewide platform and an introduction to the Black Business Association.
Over the years, Cooper, a former Cal State Los Angeles instructor, has leveraged his knowledge, his resources and his relationships for the cause of advancing Black business enterprise from City Hall to the White House. He used various platforms made available to him to give voice to Black entrepreneurship.
He is known for taking policymakers on the local, state, and national levels to task when it comes to crafting responsible legislation that makes it easier for Black businesses to exist and thrive. In 1976, Cooper made his first trade mission to Washington, D.C. It was a BBA delegation that pressed the Congressional Small Business Committee and other federal agencies to create national minority business and procurement programs. The trade mission became a BBA signature program for the next two decades.
Under Cooper’s leadership, BBA has accomplished much, establishing training, networking, and procurement partnerships with some of the largest corporations and government agencies in America. Southern California Edison, one of the nation’s largest electric utilities, named Cooper and the BBA as its 2021 Community Partnership honoree.
“I just did what I had to do,” said Cooper, who describes himself as a man who has different walks and different talks. “Most importantly, I have the ability to deliver a message. Right now my message is that I’m leaving the BBA in good hands.”
With Sarah R. Harris stepping in as an interim president, a changing of the guard is complete.
“Having worked with Mr. Cooper for more than two decades and embracing the same passion for seeing Black and minority-owned businesses flourish, it is my honor to be entrusted with helping to shape the next chapter of the BBA to realize its full potential and engage with a new generation of business owners,” Harris said. “I am definitely ready to get to work.”
While he will no longer be involved in the day-to-day activities of the organization, Cooper said he will only be a phone call away.
“I look forward to assisting the board in whatever way I can with the transition to building a stronger organization with the commitment to service young African-American entrepreneurs because they are our future,” Cooper said. “My servitude will continue as I transition to the role of president emeritus and chairman of the board.”
Cooper, who has worked with Harris for 20 years, said he has complete faith in her ability to lead the organization.
“It is my intention to offer all support to the incoming interim president, Sarah R. Harris, in a way that affords her the opportunity to lead without encumbrances,” he said. “We need new leadership. From over 20 years of working with and knowing Ms. Harris, I have personally witnessed her having demonstrated a strong commitment to the BBA, which makes me confident in supporting this transition. I’m very pleased with the leadership. She is fantastic. She has a commitment to hard work.”
An outgoing person with an immediately likable, outgoing, and engaging personality, Cooper has made a number of influential and community-based friends throughout his Black business tenure.
“Anyone who really knows me will tell you, Skip Cooper is crazy,” Cooper said. “Really, they will.”
No one called him crazy, but what some had to say about Cooper was that he has made an enormous impact on the Black business community.
Gene Hale, the founder, and CEO of G&C Equipment Corporation, has known Cooper for 30 years.
“Skip is an invaluable asset to the community,” said Hale, who worked with Cooper as the former chairman of the BBA. “He was so important that he gave up all his personal time and made personal financial sacrifices to help Black businesses.
“He is such an unselfish person. He has dedicated so much of his time to helping other people. He is a great mentor and an excellent resource. He has formed a lot of relationships with people who can assist our Black businesses in opening doors. He’s also been very helpful to me over the years.”
Edwin Lombard, the president and CEO of ELM Strategies, has known Cooper for 25 years and describes him as a “historian.”
“He has been in the position and forefront of advocating for Black business for so long,” Lombard said. “He has consistently been in the fight to make sure Black businesses are respected and receive their just due across the nation. He’s one of the nicest gentlemen you would ever want to meet. He is a wealth of knowledge. He has been in the game for so long. He can tell you where the bones are buried and tell you whose they are.”
Lombard said Cooper “leaves a tremendous legacy in the Black community.”
“The Black community should give Skip his flowers now,” Lombard said. “He deserves them. I don’t know if there is anyone who can step up to the plate and deliver as he did.”
Crystal Mitchell is the co-director of Recycling Black Dollars and has known Cooper for 15 years.
Mitchell said Cooper has done an “admirable job.”
“We have to pay tribute and much respect to a man who dedicated his whole life to our community,” she said. “There are very few like him. From a community standpoint, he is the pioneer of community-based organizations. He was all about the Black community being strong and making sure opportunities were availed to those communities. He’s the most committed man I know. No one has worked harder than Skip Cooper.”
Barbara Lindsay, the founder of Black Business Expo has known Cooper since 1988.
“He served the Black community extremely well,” Lindsay said. “He can be a mentor for the next person. He has an abundance of knowledge that he is able to share. That’s what we need. We’re missing that. He’s so giving and really wants to make a difference. He’s all about serving, serving and serving.”
Although he’s receiving a number of accolades for his work, Cooper said he wished he had done more during his time with the BBA.
“I would have liked to have been the force in creating 50 million Black corporations,” Cooper said. “I would have liked to develop more successful Black businesses. That would have made me feel good inside.”
The Board of Directors of the Black Business Association will host a tribute reception to salute Cooper for a lifetime of work Feb. 24. The event will include the BBA’s 2022-23 Board of Directors Installation Ceremony. The details of the event, including the location, will be announced at a later date.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.